Ever since the launch of the Indian Super League five years ago, I-League clubs have been at loggerheads with the All India Football Federation over their future.

And when the AIFF decided to implement the Masters Right Agreement it had signed with IMG-Reliance by giving ISL the status of the top league in the country earlier this year, the general feeling was that it sounded a death knell for the I-League clubs.

The AIFF had then promised the clubs that the I-League winner would at least get an AFC Cup slot while the national federation worked out a roadmap for integrating the two leagues over the next three-four years.

On Monday, the Asian Football Confederation and the AIFF finally unveiled the six-year roadmap during a meeting with all stakeholders in Kuala Lumpur.

What is the roadmap in a nutshell?

AIFF's roadmap for club football in India

Roadmap Promotion / relegation details Remarks
2019-'20 No promotion & relegation in ISL
2020-'21 No promotion & relegation in ISL Two clubs from I-League to be offered entry into ISL by end of season
2021-'22 No promotion & relegation in ISL League format (name of league, number of teams etc) to be decided by AIFF for implementation 
2022-'23 Winner of I-League to be promoted to ISL, no relegation No entry fee; no distribution of central revenue for the promoted club; only by sporting merit facilities, & national club licensing criteria
2023-'24 Winner of I-League to be promoted to ISL, no relegation No entry fee; no distribution of central revenue for the promoted club; only by sporting merit facilities, & national club licensing criteria
2024-'25 One main league & one knock-out cup tournament, promotion & relegation to be implemented

What are the provisions of the roadmap?

The immediate bone of contention between the AIFF and I-League clubs was over the continental tournament slots as the designated top league gets a berth in the AFC Champions League qualifiers while the knock-out tournament winner gets a spot in the AFC Cup according to the rules.

Till last year, the ISL was treated as the knockout tournament for this purpose. But with ISL officially becoming the top league from the upcoming season, it was important for AIFF to convince AFC to give the other spot to I-League, which is not a knockout tournament.

AFC has accepted that request and the winner of the I-League will get to play in the AFC Cup for now. Sources say that the tournament structure in AFC could change at the end of the next season with new commercial partners likely to join and these provisions may be revisited again.

On the larger topic of the merger of the two leagues, AFC has laid down a six-year plan that begins with two I-League clubs being offered a spot in the ISL from the 2020-’21 season.

The next year, AIFF has to decide the structure, number of teams in the top tear and even the name of the league that will take shape in 2024-’25 season.

For the subsequent two seasons, the I-League champions would get a direct entry in the ISL without paying the franchise fee. The clubs promoted this way would, however, not get any share of the central revenue.

The final structure of one league and one knock-out tournament will ultimately come together in the 2024-’25 season when promotion and relegation will begin.

This means that the current ISL teams will have immunity from relegation till 2024-’25 season while four teams from the I-League would be definitely added to the ISL.

What does this mean for I-League clubs?

The I-League clubs were staring at a dead end after the AIFF announced that the ISL would be the top league from the upcoming season.

While they did make noise about losing out on the AFC Champions League spot, there is no doubt that many of them have been struggling even with the (approximate) Rs 5 crore budget and to compete at the Asian level was always going to be difficult with the top Indian players already playing in the other league.

The new roadmap has not only thrown them a lifeline, but it has also given them about three years to improve their own processes to pass the AFC licensing criteria and prepare for the future.

Which two I-League clubs will be invited to join the ISL?

In all probability, the two I-League teams which would be invited to join the ISL before the next season will be Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. Several attempts have been made in the past to get the two legacy clubs into the ISL fold and only if the negotiations fail again will the other clubs get a look in. In the longer run, India would have a 16-20 team league by 2024-’25, something stakeholders involved in Indian football have been demanding over the years.

What else will it mean for the I-League?

It is quite possible that some of the I-League clubs would look to cut cost on the foreign recruits. No other teams apart from Mohun Bagan and East Bengal were in favour of having more than three foreigners in the squad in the past. On the flip side, this would mean that more Indian youngsters would get a chance to showcase their talent.

What are the big challenges?

The biggest challenge for the clubs, especially those with corporate backing, has been sustainability. The ISL clubs have been bleeding a lot of money and though the central revenue has steadily increased every year, it is unlikely that the deficit will be covered anytime soon.

The I-League clubs would face a similar predicament as they are now officially relegated to the second tier. And the level of interest in the league would diminish further if and when Mohun Bagan and East Bengal leave their fold to join ISL.

Can all the changes be implemented on time?

The bigger question mark is also on AIFF’s ability to implement the action plan effectively as the national federation has proposed a similar action-plan a few years ago but nothing really came out of it, despite AFC and Fifa’s involvement.

The only difference this time is that there is more enthusiasm among all the stakeholders to find a way forward for Indian football and even the biggest critics of AIFF and FSDL, the body which runs the ISL, have expressed positive sentiments towards the proposed roadmap.

The ball is now in AIFF and FSDL’s court now.